MONEY Shopping

American Apparel’s Unhappy Holidays

The embattled clothing retailer reportedly missed sales projections and is slowing down production amid calls from investors for the company to sell.

MONEY Shopping

How to Get Cash for Your Unwanted Gift Cards

141226_EM_GIFTCARDS
Tom Hahn—Getty Images

Fortunately, you aren't stuck with that gift card to your great-aunt's favorite store. Here's how you can dump it for something you actually want this holiday.

Now that Christmas has passed and the piles of wrapping and ribbons are cleared, you have a good view of the duds in your holiday haul.

For items like that hideous sweater from your cousin, see our guide to returning and exchanging gifts. But if the unwanted present is a little rectangle of plastic redeemable at a store you’ve never heard of or would never willingly wander into, it may seem like you’re stuck with it—or whatever item you find least offensive in that shop.

That’s if you use it at all. This year alone, American consumers will leave more than $1 billion in store credit unused, according to CEB TowerGroup, which tracks gift card trends. Rather than leave that card to languish in your wallet, consider these options for swapping it for something you do want.

Trade It In

There are a number of websites that let you get cash back for your card or swap for another you’re more likely to use, but don’t expect to recoup the full value. These vendors will take a small percentage, meaning you’ll pay a price for your swap.

To make sure you get the most for any trade, try giftcardgranny.com. This online gift card aggregator lets you select the merchant of your card and then easily compare offers from 15 reseller sites, including cardpool.com and giftcards.com, to figure out who will offer you back the highest percentage of your card’s value. Since each gift card reseller uses different fees and payment methods, it’s worthwhile to do this check first and then go to the site offering the most for your unwanted plastic.

Not included in this price comparision site is a new offer from Walmart that’s good if you have a lot of love for the big-box retailer. Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines through its own online exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com. Certain merchant cards will get you up to 95% of the original card’s value, or about 3% more than most reseller websites, which usually top out at 92% of a card’s face value. Others will get you 85% back, and some as little as 70%.

Sell It

If you don’t want to make your swap online, you can visit certain Coinstar kiosks (yes, those same machines you dump a year’s worth of spare change into). These yellow boxes accept gift cards from more than 150 retailers and restaurants, as long as they have a balance of at least $20. It will make you an offer for the card, and, if you accept, will provide you with a voucher you can then redeem for cash at the register of the shop the kiosk is located in.

If you don’t want to have the value of your card dictated by a reseller, use raise.com. Through this site, you can set your own price for the gift card in a marketplace similar to eBay, without the bidding. You can list any e-card for free on the site and a physical gift card for $1, but when you sell it, the company will take a 15% cut, meaning that even if you sell it for full value you can still end up recouping the same or less than a site that pays a lower percentage outright, plus you won’t have to wait as long to get money back.

Donate It

If you’d rather keep another service from profiting off your gift card or don’t find the exchange worthwhile, contact your favorite charity organization and ask if they accept donated gift cards. You could also use a site like Gift Card Giver, which distributes donated gift cards to certain approved nonprofit organizations. Giving the card away could lower your tax bill and extend that holiday generosity even more.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
Why gift cards are the only present that makes sense
Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Christmas By the Numbers

Everything you didn't know you needed to know about Christmas

Christmas was Thursday, but do you know how many Christmas trees were sold this year and how many of them were real? Do you know how much the average American spent on gifts this year? How about the most downloaded Christmas song? Hint: The answer to that one is featured at the end of Love Actually.

If you’re still in the Christmas spirit (or even if you aren’t), watch Friday’s installment of Know Right Now to learn some yuletide facts about this year’s X-Mas.

MONEY Holidays

Hate Your Gifts? Tips for Returns, Exchanges, and Regifting

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Michael Blann—Getty Images

December 25 is the traditional day for epic gift exchanges. Inevitably, it's also the start of an equally epic season for figuring out what to do with unwanted presents.

If you’re looking over one or more of your holiday gifts right now with puzzlement or disgust, and with a yearning to make it disappear in exchange for something—anything—else, you’re not alone. (Side note: If the above describes you, check yourself, you ungrateful SOB.) As my colleague Jacob Davidson pointed out, the most compelling reason to give gift cards for the holidays is that as many as three-quarters of Americans won’t like the gifts they receive. The cold-hearted but compelling 2009 book Scroogenomics made the argument that gift-giving wastes billions annually because it’s so rare for the recipient to deem the present worth the money that the giver paid for it. The result is that value is destroyed in the traditional exchange of surprise presents.

While returning a gift can be dicey because people’s feelings can be hurt, the purpose of a gift is to make the recipient happy. And the best givers will want that to be the result, regardless of whether the giftee keeps the original purchase or not. What’s more, it’s in the best interest of retailers to have good return policies because shoppers are more likely to make purchases at stores where it’s not a pain in the neck to do returns and exchanges.

Assuming that your mind is made up that you’d rather not simply live with the gift out of obligation or a fear of causing offense, your basic options are to return, exchange, or regift. Here’s some guidance on all fronts.

Return
First off, if you know you don’t want the gift you’ve received—perhaps you already have one, or it’s not remotely in your taste—don’t open it. You have the best chance getting a refund or the full value in store credit for packages that are unopened and in brand-new condition. Next, check if the gift was accompanied by a gift or regular receipt. If yes, the person who bought the gift saved you some potentially big hassles, because without a receipt you may have no right whatsoever to a return or exchange. (Note to self: Always include gift receipts with presents.)

If there is no receipt, you could ask the giver—nicely, cautiously, graciously—where the gift was purchased and if he or she still had a copy of the receipt. This could be quite tricky, and if you’re going there it would be wise to mention how deeply you appreciate the thought behind the gift, but that there was a reason you wanted something slightly different; it could be as simple as needing a different size. Then again, there are reasons to steer way clear of this route. Not only could the giver wind up being offended, the situation could make an extremely awkward turn if, say, the giver didn’t want to reveal that the present was purchased at 85% off.

Assuming there is a receipt, look up the store’s return and exchange policy online, and then be sure to bring the item back to the store before the period expires. As the comprehensive holiday return report from the site Consumer World notes, around the holidays many major retailers institute policies that sensibly make it easy for recipients to bring items back after Christmas. Walmart, for instance, normally has return policies of 14, 15, or 30 days, depending on the item, but for purchases made between November 1 and December 24, the return period countdown doesn’t commence until December 26. In other words, if the item was normally subject to a 30-day return limit, the recipient would have to return it within 30 days of December 26, even if it was purchased in early November. What with the crush of crowds hitting the malls in the days right after Christmas, you might consider waiting for a bit before handling the return.

If you don’t have the receipt but you know where the item was purchased, go ahead and bring it back to the store. It’s likely the item was purchased with a credit card or was otherwise tracked by the retailer, so there will be a record of it on file, and you should be offered store credit or the right to exchange. (An outright cash refund is extremely unlikely, and pretty much impossible unless the original transaction was in cash, but it can’t hurt to ask.)

When bringing the item back, bring ID. According to the National Retail Federation, somewhere between 3.4% and 6.5% of returns are fraudulent, and one way retailers try to curtail abuse (and arguably, cut down on returns in general) is by requiring ID during returns and exchanges. Victoria’s Secret wound up on Consumer Reports “Naughty” list this year for its rigid requirement that customers present a government-issued ID for all returns and exchanges. Beyond having ID at the ready, be polite and patient. Store managers are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on a return if they perceive you as a potentially good customer down the road.

Regift
If you think that regifting is a no-no, you’re in the minority. An American Express survey revealed that 42% of Americans repurposed presents they received by passing them along as gifts to someone else, while 76% of respondents deem regifting as “acceptable.”

But as with hand-picked and purchased gifts themselves, there are thoughtful and thoughtless ways to go about regifting. For example, it’s bad form to regift an item within a circle of friends who socialize regularly because it’s easy to see how word could spread and everyone could find out where the gift originated. It’s also the opposite of generous to pass along a gift to someone else when you found it hideous. Check out our five-step guide to regifting to repurpose presents in a way that won’t offend anyone, and that (hopefully) won’t get you branded as a crass, thoughtless regifter—which is even worse than being a thoughtless giver.

MONEY Shopping

The 3 Things People Buy on Christmas Day

The shopping frenzy may be over, but that doesn't mean people aren't shelling out for these things on Christmas Day.

Christmas is supposed to be the day the buying frenzy ends. But consumerism never rests, not even for a single day. Especially not if you’re spending money on these three things, which top the list of Christmas Day purchases.

1. Movie Tickets

OK, you’ve opened presents, you’ve schmoozed with cousin Ralph, you’ve had your fill of turkey—now what? I know, let’s go see a movie! That impulse has made Christmas day openings a huge source of profits for Hollywood.

Major flicks like Annie and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (not to mention some movie about North Korea) are opening Christmas Eve, and if history is any guide, they’ll have a chance to make quite a bit of coin. Last year, total domestic box office gross for the week that included Christmas was almost $400,000. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the single-day record for Christmas earnings belongs to Robert Downey Jr.’s 2012 Sherlock Holmes remake, which took in $25.6 million.

2. Chinese Food

The stereotype of non-Christians eating Chinese food on Christmas appears to be based in truth, according to Slate. The site partnered with food delivery app GrubHub to find out how much interest in Chinese food increased on Christmas by measuring what percentage the cuisine made up out of all the service’s orders and then looking at how much that percentage increased on Christmas.

The result? Chinese food experienced a relative increase in order percentage of 152% on Christmas (at least in the urban areas GrubHub servers). So there you have it: Christmas is definitely a big day for Chinese restaurants.

3. Booze

Going to a movie solves some of the stress of hanging out with the in-laws, but you can’t spend all of Christmas in the theater. How to get through the rest of the holiday? According to a Yahoo’s “Alcohol and America” survey, the answer is, well, a stiff drink. Respondents listed Christmas as one of their favorite drinking holidays, second only to New Year’s Day. It’s no accident that Budweiser launched a holiday marketing project to sell expensive, “vintage” crates of beer to millennials.

MONEY Shopping

Walmart Will Trade You for Other Merchants’ Gift Cards

Don't like the gift card you got for Christmas? Walmart feels your pain.

Don’t worry if you don’t like some of the gift cards you receive this Christmas. The AP reports that Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines.

Beginning on Christmas day, shoppers can trade in any eligible gift card for a Walmart gift card of similar value. How much you get depends on what kind of card you’re trading in. An Amazon card will fetch 95% of its value, a Gap card will be worth 85%, and some cards will be matched with just 70% of their original value. The exchange program is being done in partnership with CardCash, the largest platform for buying and selling gift cards. Walmart says this exchange is a test but could be made permanent if there is heavy demand.

To exchange their gift cards, shoppers don’t even need to leave the house. Walmart’s card exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com, lets users input their gift card’s information, and a Walmart gift card will be emailed to them once the original card’s balance is verified.

The motivation for Walmart’s gift exchange is probably to increase store traffic, but there are many reasons retailers love getting their gift cards into the hands of shoppers. As MONEY’s Kara Brandeisky points out, shoppers are likely to overspend when given what seems like fake money. In addition, researchers have found that consumers buy items they don’t need when they use a stored-value certificate; the CEB TowerGroup consultancy has found that 65% of gift card users spend 38% more than the face value of the card.

The CEB also reported that customers tend to forget about their gift cards and don’t spend the full balance, resulting in more than $1 billion in unused store credit this year alone. But that appears to be less true in the case of Walmart: A company spokesperson told the AP that 95% of Walmart holiday gift cards are usually redeemed by February.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
Why gift cards are the only present that makes sense
Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

MONEY Shopping

5 Everyday Items You Paid More for in 2014—and 3 That Got Cheaper

A few of America's favorite items for snacking, cooking, and recaffeinating got a lot more expensive this year. Meanwhile, one big cost has gotten much cheaper.

Inflation causes the slow, steady rise in prices for all manner of goods and services. But the price hikes incurred by the five common expenditures below have far outshot inflation. Over the past year, chances are a much larger portion of your household budget has been allocated to the following expenses.

 

  • Olive Oil

    Bottle of olive oil
    Sue Wilson—Alamy

    Olive Oil Times noted recently that “2014 will go down as one of the worst years in recent history for olive oil production in Italy.” Production has slowed significantly in Spain and Portugal as well, thanks to a range of factors including a fruit fly infestation and a cold spring followed by a hot, humid summer—followed by hail storms. The end result is that global production of olive oil could be down as much as 27%, and prices for high-quality European olive oil are soaring: Recently, wholesale prices for extra virgin olive oil in Italy were up 121% compared to a year ago.

  • Beef

    T-bone steak on white butcher paper
    Foodcollection.com—Alamy

    Virtually all meat prices rose in 2014, thanks largely to long periods of drought in the American West colliding with increased global demand. Yet beef prices rose swiftest of all this year, with live cattle futures hitting an all-time high in November and retail prices being pushed up 18% to 20% compared to a year ago. And get this: Skyrocketing beef prices are being blamed for what appears to be the return of cattle rustlers, who presumably made off with 150 cows that were reported missing in Idaho, and that are worth over $300,000. Perhaps worst of all, bacon prices have been rising nearly as steeply as beef.

  • Chocolate

    Hershey's, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel chocolate bars.
    Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

    Surging cocoa prices led both Hershey’s and Mars to raise prices by 8% or so on your favorite chocolate candy bars this year. And because the supply of chocolate appears unable to keep up with demand—which is soaring in particular in Latin America and Asia—chocolate prices are expected to keep rising going forward.

     

  • Airfare

    Airport planes
    Nicholas J. Reid—Getty Images

    The average round trip flight in the U.S. surpassed $500 in 2014, and the cost of flying domestically has been rising nearly 11% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation. What’s puzzling—not to mention frustrating—for travelers is that base prices for flights have been soaring at a time when airline fees and airline profits are both sharply on the rise. Lower fuel prices have served to make profits even larger, and while the airlines have kept prices high thus far in the new era of cheap oil, costs have declined so dramatically that some are anticipating slightly cheaper airfare in 2015.

  • Coffee

    The Starbucks Corp. logo sits on carboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks coffee shop.
    Jason Alden—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Starbucks, Folgers, and Dunkin’ Donuts are among the well-known coffee brands subjected to price increases in 2014. Persistent drought in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee bean producer, has been blamed as the main reason for the price hikes. And while it may seem as if coffee drinkers will pay any price to get their java fix, a recent report noting falling coffee sales from Smuckers, maker of Folgers, indicates that the demand for coffee has its limits. Meanwhile, Starbucks’ new plan focuses on a luxury retail concept, where a haute cup of Joe will run around $6.

    On the flip side, you paid less for these three expenditures in 2014:

  • Gas

    Mark Monaham, owner of the Raceway gas station in McComb, Miss., changes his fuel price billboard, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. Gas prices throughout the region continue to fall as oil prices plummet.
    Daniel Lin—AP

    Thanks to an increase in supply and lower consumption due to more fuel efficient vehicles and other factors, gas prices launched into a slow, steady decline last summer that hasn’t really ended. The national average hit what was then a low for 2014 in early October, at $3.27 per gallon—a rate that seems quite expensive of late. Prices dipped under $2 per gallon in a few stations in Oklahoma in early December, and government forecasts are predicting a national average of $2.60 per gallon for 2015, down from $3.51 in 2013.

     

  • TVs

    A Walmart employee helps a customer with a 50" TV on sale for $218 on Black Friday in Broomfield, Colorado November 28, 2014.
    Rick Wilking—Reuters

    It’s no surprise that the price of most electronics drops year after year, thanks to increasingly lower production costs and the fact that any technology available for more than six months is deemed old and unhip—and therefore must be discounted. Even so, the dip in TV prices in 2014 has been pretty amazing. In October, the Labor Department reported that TV prices were down 14%, and that decrease of course occurred well before the rollout of super cheap TV deals on Black Friday and the rest of the holiday period. As Consumer Reports noted recently, it’s now pretty easy to find a 40-inch TV for less than the price of an 8-inch tablet.

     

  • Cellphone Bills

    Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street in New York.
    John Minchillo—AP

    The past year brought with it more changes in cellphone plans than we’ve seen in perhaps the previous five years combined. In addition to a sharp shift toward more possibilities in “non-contract” plans, in which you’re not locked into a two-year deal, wireless providers have been especially aggressive this year in terms of rolling out new plans and bonuses in order to win over customers from the competition. In August, for instance, Verizon and Sprint both introduced significantly cheaper plans to new customers—potentially cutting one’s monthly bill by 50%. More recently, Sprint promised a new unlimited talk and text deal that would cut in half the bill currently paid by any AT&T or Verizon customer.

    None of this necessarily means that your household’s smartphone bill actually went down in 2014. But considering the increased competition and wide range of new individual and family plan offers on the table, you should be paying less. If you’re not, it’s time to start shopping around to get a better deal. You might not even have to switch providers. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling up and asking for a cheaper option.

MONEY holiday shopping

3 Last-Minute Gifts You Definitely Shouldn’t Buy—And What to Get Instead

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Paul Linse—Corbis

Behind on your holiday shopping? Here's how not to screw up

It’s that time of year, everyone. There are three shopping days left before Christmas, and as of a few days ago, 73% of you hadn’t bought all of your gifts yet. Retailers are so used to procrastinators now that some are specifically preparing for an influx of last-minute buyers.

I’d ask why we all can’t just learn to plan ahead, but there’s no time for that kind of self-reflection. There’s no time for anything but shopping. But before you rush down to your favorite store or schedule a lot of overnight shipping on Amazon, remember this: The key to a good last-minute gift is the recipient can’t know you bought it in the last five minutes. With that in mind, here are three presents that are absolutely guaranteed to blow your cover, and what you should get instead.

Soap and Lotions

“Everyone loves soap! I’ll just hit up the Bath & Body Works, grab a few gift boxes, and still have time to pick up drinks for the Christmas party!”

These are the words of holiday shopping failure.

It’s true that everyone needs soap. That’s why it’s a bad gift. Soap is probably the most generic present on the planet. By purchasing soap for your loved ones, friends, or even acquaintances, you are saying that you know that person showers now and then—or that they don’t shower enough. Neither is good.

What to get instead: Booze. It’s the one completely generic, readily available gift (even in airports) that no one will be disappointed to receive.

Starbucks Gift Card

I’m on the record as a big supporter of gift cards. Lot’s of people want them and they guarantee your recipient will get something they like. That’s more than you can say about almost any other present.

But Starbucks gift cards are an exception. They’re kind of like soap in the sense that, because everyone drinks coffee, this gift shows you don’t know much about the person you’re giving it to. And, in a way, it’s worse than soap because there is no product more readily available than something from Starbucks, making it clear you probably picked it up on Christmas morning.

But the problems are deeper than that. The great thing about gift cards is they allow you to splurge on something without feeling bad. Who cares if you don’t really need a Kindle? You’re playing with house money! What is anyone going to splurge on at Starbucks? A bigger latte? Wow, what a magical Christmas.

What to get instead: Amazon gift card. Whenever I recommend gift cards, people always ask, “Well why don’t you just get them actual money then?!” Because giving someone a wad of cash makes Christmas feel like a drug deal. An Amazon gift card is pretty much the same as cash, but more gifty.

Sports Apparel

There are two rules that govern the gift giving of clothing: Don’t get someone something they already have, and don’t get them something they might be embarrassed to wear. Getting your friend or loved one sports clothing violates both of these rules.

If someone is a big [insert sports team] fan, they undoubtedly have an [insert sports team] hat, shirt, or jersey. Maybe they don’t have all three, but you won’t know which part of their [insert sports team] wardrobe is lacking until you see the disappointed look on your friend’s face as they unwrap their third Twins cap.

Some attempt to avoid this outcome by buying non-standard sports gear: Some [insert sports team] sweatpants, or a super-cool [insert sports team] beanie! But unless they’re some kind of [insert sports team] fanatic, they probably don’t actually want a bunch of random items baring their team insignia and your gift will end up in the back of the closet.

What to get instead: Tickets to a game. That’s a can’t-miss present for any sports fan, and it shows you really value your relationship because you’re willing to spend a few hours together at the arena. Plus, experiences make people happier than things.

MONEY

5 Ways Scammers are Targeting Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers

The baddies perpetrating these crimes ought to get coal in their stockings. But if you're not careful, they might get your money instead.

In the final days before Christmas, holiday scams are haunting shoppers once again. As you finish buying the last of your presents, watch out for these Scrooge-like schemes:

1. Feast of the phishers

Email scams in particular have been making headlines this season. They even earned a spot on the Better Business Bureau’s list of holiday scams to avoid.

“Phishing emails are a common way for hackers to get at your personal information or break into your computer,” the BBB warns. “Around the holidays, beware of e-cards and messages pretending to be from companies like UPS, Federal Express or major retailers with links to package tracking information.”

Also, be wary of any communications received from charities to which you’ve never given money.

To outwit these scammers, don’t open any emails from senders you don’t recognize, and definitely don’t click on any links or download any attachments in these messages.

And if you get an email from a particular retailer and you haven’t recently made a purchase (or signed up for the mailing list), assume that it’s a phishing attempt and don’t click through just in case.

2. $0 gift cards

Gift cards may seem like the perfect gift, but they can also be the perfect scam.

Sometimes, cards that are sold online from sites other than those of major retailers can turn out to contain little or no money.

But gift card scams abound in stores as well. Sophisticated criminals copy gift card information right off cards on the rack, wait for a shopper to activate the card and then swoop in and steal the funds.

For the safest possible purchase, buy gift cards directly from the source. And when buying in-store, remember to check that the scratch-off activation code on the back is untouched before purchase if the card was openly on display.

3. The doggie double-cross

You may be shopping for more than clothes and electronics this season. If you’re hoping to add a four-legged family member, you’ll need to be careful here as well.

In the so-called puppy scam, unknowing prospective pet owners locate a supposed breeder online and wire money for a dog they hope to adopt, but are ultimately left without a furry friend.

The Humane Society of the United States recommends avoiding such scams by adopting Christmas puppies from a shelter, animal rescue group or breeder to whom you’ve been referred by someone you trust.

4. Package pilfering

Ordering some of your gifts online?

The downside of convenience is that the pile of packages that arrives on your doorstep may be tempting to some unsavory sorts. Already people across the country—from Texas to New Jersey—have reported boxes being stolen.

To prevent becoming a victim of box burglars, you could require signature on delivery for anything you order for yourself and ask anyone you expect to be sending you things to do the same. You can ask the shipper to hold your goods at its local outpost, where you can then pick it up.

5. The wallet grab

Criminals may be getting savvier with their online schemes, but the traditional pickpocketing and smash-and-grab techniques still exist.

Crowded malls filled with frantic, distracted eleventh hour shoppers are a pickpocket’s dream come true.

So, as obvious as it may sound, make sure you take precautionary measures, such as holding your purse and/or wallet close to the front of your body, keeping all bags zipped and removing any purchases from plain sight in your car.

Courtney Jespersen writes for NerdWallet DealFinder, a website that helps shoppers find the best deals on popular products.

More from NerdWallet:

TIME

Here Are 10 Great Gifts Under $10

Need something cheap to stuff the stockings? We've got you covered

Maybe you just need a few more little somethings to keep the kids happy on Christmas morning. Maybe you need a trinket for an office Yankee swap. No matter the need, there are plenty of inexpensive options to fit the bill.

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